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Aviation Careers: Stephen Fiegel, Aerobatic Flight Instructor

Stephen Fiegel is a 26 year old aerobatic, tailwheel, and warbird instructor with more than 1,200 hours of flight time (more than 2/3 of his time is in tailwheel aircraft). He started flying gliders at age 16, and since has also flown helicopters, through high performance piston aircraft. He also recently made his first appearance in an airshow this past summer in his hometown in Pennsylvania. Today, Stephen is the assistant chief pilot at Gauntlet Warbirds, located outside Chicago, Illinois. Gauntlet Warbirds has a large range of flight programs, with aircraft ranging from a Bellanca Decathlon, to an L-39 Albatross Jet. Welcome to the Boldmethod community, Stephen!

Stephen Fiegel

Why You Should Be Interested

First of all, it's a blast. It's one of those things where I love going to work each day (I'm not even sure if this should count as work!). It's a job where no two days are ever the same; we do a wide variety of flying at Gauntlet Warbirds. We get to help share the magic of flight with people who may never have flown in a small plane, or a plane at all for that matter. We also take up experienced pilots who want to do specialized training. It's not only the flying that I enjoy, we're also instructors at heart and get to interact with students on a regular basis, which is a ton of fun. If you love flying aerobatics and warbirds, and enjoy sharing the experience, this might be the perfect job for you.

Stephen Fiegel

The Typical Flight

There really isn't a "typical" flight. We can do anything from rides in our Extra and T-6, to advanced jet training. We do aerobatic lessons, be it an intro or with those who are experienced and just want to fly a more advanced airplane. In addition, we give aircraft type specific training, so we do see lots of high-time pilots who just want to learn to fly a different aircraft, like the T-6 for instance. We also do contracting work with the government and military, which has given me the opportunity to ferry WWII T-6 Texans across the country coast-to-coast.

Stephen Fiegel

The Passengers

The opportunity to meet and interact with a wide variety of people is one of my favorite aspects of the job. The fun part of taking someone who's never been in a small airplane before is helping them work through their natural nervousness and seeing how much they really enjoy it once they're actually in the air. Seeing that look of a new discovery in their faces is absolutely amazing; passengers enjoy the flight 99.9% of the time.

As far as the high-time pilots go, it can be very similar to this "first time" mentality, since they're often about to experience a completely new aspect of aviation. They may come with 20,000 hours of flight time in large jets, but it may be a brand new experience for them to be upside down in the airplane. In those aspects, it's more of an instructional experience. The interactions are different with higher-time pilots, but that's what makes the job so fun. It keeps you on your toes. The aerobatic and tailwheel flying is very stick and rudder based, so it's a good way to get pilots back to the basics of flying.

Gauntlet Warbirds

A Day At Work

The typical day starts the day before flying; we make phone calls for weather and create lesson plans for students, to see how they're progressing. The day of, we walk in to get the gear and aircraft ready to go. Generally, you'll have 2 or 3 students during the day. At most, we'll do 5-6 flights, so there are some ride-along flights mixed in there. Instruction is a lot of fun because of the obvious challenges, but you become more of a mentor once the student progresses to a certain point. During the rides, I actually get to fly the airplane more than when I'm doing instruction, which I also enjoy. It's definitely not a 9 to 5 job, but I like that I get to sleep at home most of the time.

Jamie Greenburg

The Pros

It's probably true of all flying, but I have the world's greatest office view. My personal favorite part of the job is seeing students progress from showing up and being a little timid to being confident and safe behind the controls. When I get to do some of the ferry flights, I get to see a lot of the country; that's a whole adventure and experience in and of itself. Flying some pretty awesome airplanes, not to mention flying them upside-down most of the time, is pretty awesome. The planes that we fly, other than the Decathlon, are not planes that you can normally find for rental at other airports. Other than personal owners, not too many people get to fly a T-6 Texan, Extra 300L, or L-39 Albatross. From the teaching perspective, it's always a challenge. Everyone has a different learning style, so you have to adapt to fit their learning style.

Jamie Greenburg

The Cons

I'm not sure if this is a pro or con (I guess it depends on how long the day is), but aerobatic flying can be pretty physically taxing. It motivates you to keep in shape, but, on the other hand, it can definitely tire you out. This job can be quite difficult to get into. You have to have certain experience and know the right people, in addition to having a little luck, in order to get a job like this. You can't just get your CFI and say, "I want to be an aerobatic instructor" right away; it's certainly an attainable goal, but it also takes a little more time than just getting the basic CFI and flying at a local school.

As an instructor, you have to make good transitions between lessons; you might be teaching a basic tailwheel lesson and then switch to teaching advanced aerobatics with the next lesson - that can be difficult. It can be difficult to make a living, as with most instructing jobs. Also, we are almost always flying VFR for the type of flying that we do. If you want to stay IFR current, you'll have to do that on your own. The weather up here in the Chicago area can wreak havoc on your schedule during the winter months, which means you might be paid less.

Stephen Fiegel

Pilot Retention And Qualifications

The FAA requirements are the easiest to describe; you'll need: your commercial single engine land license, be a CFI, and have your second class medical at minimum. For our aircraft, you'll need: a tailwheel endorsement, a complex endorsement, a high performance endorsement, and a high altitude endorsement for the jet.

As far as our company and insurance requirements go, you'll need aircraft-specific training and experience. Generally speaking, you have to have some sort of aerobatic and tailwheel experience. You can't expect to teach others aerobatics or tailwheel if you yourself don't have a lot of experience in those areas. Hours-wise, most people won't get hired without 100 hours of tailwheel time and 500 total flight hours. Our company also requires a bachelor's degree; it doesn't have to be in anything aviation related, but we like to see that level of higher education and knowledge. At Gauntlet Warbirds, we don't have the sort of pilot turnover that you might find at a standard flight school. Most us are here because we love to do this kind of stuff, so we stick around a little longer. If you're in it just to build hours, this isn't the place for you. I personally plan to continue this sort of flying and instructing as long as I'm physically able to; I don't think I'll ever give up aerobatic instruction.

Dana B. Grub

Salary Ranges And Benefits

As far as salary, a nationwide range for aerobatic instructors can range from $20 an hour to over $100 an hour, based on location, experience, and what you're teaching. For basic tailwheel instruction, it will be a little lower on the pay end than if you're teaching in high-performance aircraft. Because we're a highly specialized market and our pilots are professional, not part-time instructors, our company generally falls into the higher tiers of pay for instructors. There isn't a difference in our company between new instructors and ones who have been here for awhile. The pay is based on what you're teaching. Basic aerobatic and tailwheel instruction pays Gauntlet pilots $50-$60 per hour. If you're teaching in the T-6 or Extra 300L, your pay by the hour is closer to the $100 range, although that's based more on flight time (not ground and flight time combined). We don't have any formal benefits such as healthcare through the company, although when we're on trips for the company doing ferry flights, everything is paid for and we're of course paid for the time.

Stephen Fiegel

The Company

Gauntlet Warbirds is a warbird, aerobatic, and tailwheel training center at the Aurora Airport, just West of downtown Chicago. Our instructors specialize in transitioning pilots of all experience levels to high-performance piston and jet aircraft. We fly all year long, but business definitely slows down in the winter due to poor weather around Chicago - it's called the windy city for a reason. In my first couple of years here, I've logged an average of 200-300 hours per year.

Stephen Fiegel

The Airplanes

I fly all of our aircraft pretty equally, with the exception of our jet, the L-39 Albatross, which I'm training to fly and instruct in. We do a good job of mixing instructors around different aircraft, keeping everyone current on as many planes as possible. If we had instructors assigned to aircraft, and an instructor were to get sick, that airplane would be completely out of service. Having multiple people fly each aircraft eliminates that possibility. The L-39 flies the least of any plane due to the operating costs ($2,300 per hour with instruction) and the fact that you have to be a private pilot to receive flight training in the aircraft.

All of the planes we fly are good for different purposes. If I had to pick the best "everyday flyer," I'd pick the T-6 Texan. It's an incredibly versatile aircraft; you can fly with the canopy back and enjoy the scenery, do some formation flying, and do some aerobatics in the plane as well. The T-6 is a big, heavy warbird that's loud and full of history - it's a blast to fly. The Extra 300L is an extremely responsive aerobatic plane that will do anything you tell it to do. The Decathlon is excellent for teaching and more basic instruction. It's hard to pick a favorite because they all have unique qualities and roles in the company.

Stephen Fiegel

Specific Qualifications

Having a strong stomach certainly helps for the aerobatic part of the job. Truthfully, that's something that your body gets used to over time. You really do need to be a people person. With students and people taking rides alike, they're putting their complete trust in you that you know what you're doing, and it's your job to be excited too. You have to like dealing with people; it's always fun meeting new people. For this type of instructing, you have to have a passion and love of teaching, finding a way to teach students in different ways according to their learning styles.

Stephen Fiegel

Advice

You have to live your passion. Don't let anybody convince you that you can't reach your goals. You have to work hard at it and always just be there in the moment. I don't know who said it first, but I've been told this hundreds of times, and it's absolutely true: "80% of succeeding in life is showing up." To be successful in aviation or really any career, you just need to start "doing," get out there and get involved.

Steven Serdikoff/THREEWIRE Images

Stephen, it's awesome that you've found a place where you're completely comfortable in your element. Thanks for showing us what aerobatic instruction is all about, I'm sure you've inspired at least a few people to pursue aerobatic flight. Do you have a question or comment for Stephen? Shoot him an email at: steve@gauntletwarbirds.com

Is this a job you'd like to have? Tell us in the comments below.


Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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